My feet eat up the plush carpet, propelling me away from my mother’s claws. But her reach is far, and I cannot block out her final remark. “That’s fine, Anna. Run away. But you’ll only feel worse for it.”
Sometimes I really hate my mother.
I return to campus Saturday night and come to the realization that I need to quit my job. I decide this the moment I open an email from Dave and read the catering schedule. I’m signed up for the football game tomorrow night. What the hell?
“I’ve got a family thing,” I blurt out when I call Dave. Besides being the lamest excuse in the world, it’s a total lie. My plans for the weekend include making a large batch of brownies, watching a movie that has absolutely no romance it, then climbing under the covers and hiding there until class starts again.
He’s supremely unhelpful. “Then you ought to have said so two weeks ago when I was doing up the schedule.”
“Can’t I change shifts with someone else?”
“Who? I’ve got all hands on deck working. This is the last game before the playoffs.”
Other team losses have put Drew’s team in contention. Something everyone but me takes very seriously. For Drew, this is one of the final steps to the National Championship. For a fleeting moment, I wonder how he feels, if he’s nervous. Then I remember that I’ve put a ban on thinking about Drew. As for the rest of the world, he’s all they can talk about. Excitement over the game and discussions about the team’s chances has been buzzing around campus for weeks.
Dave’s tone is far from compassionate. “Sorry but you’re shit out of luck.”
And so I’m stuck working the luxury box during Drew’s game.
Fuck. A. Duck.
Usually this is a good gig. The luxury box is heated, while everyone working outside freezes their asses off. I simply have to set up the buffet and wine bar and then keep it clean. Only I can’t avoid seeing the game. Or hearing it. Our college sports radio pipes in through speakers, giving me a play-by-play update on Drew’s progress as I try to concentrate on my work.
University bigwigs and their friends are relaxing, stuffing their faces, and giving their opinion of Drew and his teammates.
“Grayson is looking good,” one of them says. “But Baylor’s off. Don’t know what the hell he’s thinking—throw the damn ball, boy!”
I want to tell the man to shut the hell up or get down on the field and play the game himself. But I hold my tongue.
“He’s open. Johnson is open. Throw—Damn it!
The room groans as the radio announcer calls an incompletion. I can’t help but look. Drew, both the real man and his doppelganger on the TVs, has his hands on his h*ps and is looking down at the grass. He clearly utters a ripe curse and then turns back to his team.
“He’s been off for the past few games,” insists Mr. Know-It-All.
And though the guy next to him is quiet about it, I still hear him mumble, “Pussy problems.”
But, God, is that what people think? My stomach rolls.
It must be, because the pig isn’t the only one who complains that Drew is off his game. The radio announcer goes on about how Drew hasn’t been himself for the past month or so. And how he needs to get his head back into it, because this game is brutal.
And it is. Every hit Drew takes has my entire body clenching in sympathy. The box is close enough that I can hear the impact of flesh upon flesh, the grunts. The opposing team, big f**king brutes from Alabama, are pummeling Drew and his boys.
Grayson is limping after a particularly vicious take down, clearly trying to shake it off, and Drew is slower to get up every time the defense hurtles into him. But he’s holding it together. He’s winning, even if it’s obviously taking everything he’s got.
When halftime rolls around, I’m a nervous wreck. My neck is aching, and I can only imagine how Drew feels. The vivid memory of his hip and torso, blue and black with bruises, cruelly shoves itself into my mind. I’d kissed and licked my way across his battered flesh. And he’d threaded his fingers through my hair and held me to him as though I was the only thing that mattered.
The truth crashes over me like a breaking wave, and I’m sucked down in the aftermath. He is the only thing that matters. I’ve known this, but until now, never completely let myself feel the void of his loss in my life. The feeling is so hard and strong that I nearly stagger.
Tears smart my eyes as I walk back to the tiny kitchen to get another platter of chicken fingers. Staring blindly at a gloppy vat of barbecue sauce, my body goes numb, as a lump fills my throat, threatening to choke me.
I’ve become everything I’ve ever been accused of, a nobody, a shadow who sought dark corners for fear of judgment. And I’d done it to myself, believing in other people’s perceptions of me, playing into it and hiding away as though I’m not good enough. The worst part is that I thought I was doing the opposite, that I was being strong, not giving a f**k.
What bullshit. If anything, I care too much. I care about the opinions of the wrong people, faceless f**king people that will never mean anything to me, and yet I’ve been ducking my head for fear of what they think.
“God.” My fist hits the countertop with bruising force. Bracing my hands on the counter, I rock back and forth, blinking back the tears. I can’t believe this. I’ve been so stupid. So blind. “God.”
In the outer room, the crowd cheers at a play. I suck in a sharp breath and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. A strange sense of lightness steals over me. My shoulders lift. But deep inside my chest, I still ache. The hole is still there.
Drew. Only he can fill that void.
After the game is over, I’m going to him. I’ll tell him everything. Beg for another chance if I have to. We could have been so good. We were so good together. I was just too much of a coward to believe in it.
As I return to the box, I feel battered but calmer, like I’ve cried all night but have finally caught my breath. The game is back on, and the spectators settle in.
I am about to set the platter on the table when it happens. It’s as if I can feel the danger creeping up. My head turns to the wide plate windows just as the men and women in the box start to shout. Everything slows down. My gaze narrows on the massive linebacker smashing into Drew, taking him out low and to the side, while another brute comes at him from the opposite side.
Drew goes down. His leg is wrong, sticking out at an odd angle. And he is screaming. It’s the sound of raw agony. It tears through the box and over the stadium. It takes the breath out of the roaring crowd, creating dead silence.
The platter crashes to the floor in a spill of fried chicken pieces. Someone turns and glares. I am already running from the room.
IN THE BOWELS of the stadium, it’s chaos. Reports and players are everywhere. People are shouting, and then campus security is there. My catering badge gets me far but not far enough. I’m stopped short of the locker room by a vigilant guard.
“I’m his friend,” I shout, frantic. Drew. Drew.
“You and everybody else, honey. Give us a break and let the doctors look at him in peace.” The guard moves to close the door, when I see Gray just behind.
“Gray Grayson! Gray!” I’m screaming.
He stops and frowns through the slit in the closing door.
Gray’s still scowling as he ambles forward and shoulders past the guard. I grab onto his arm as soon as he’s close enough. His skin is cold and covered with sweat. Next to me, he’s a house, a wall of white and red in his pads and uniform. His expression is grim, scared, and it scares me more.
“Is he okay?” I’m panting. My grip on his arm tightens.
Gray’s throat works, and when he talks it’s a rasp. “His leg is broken. Bad.”
“Oh, Drew,” I whisper. His season is over. Maybe his career. I ache for him. Wrapping my arms about my middle, I search Gray’s face. “Can you get me in to see him?”
Gray’s blue eyes fill with suspicion. It’s as if he’s just remembered that I am the enemy. I don’t know how much Drew has told him, but it can’t be good.
“He doesn’t need that aggravation. If you’re here to gawk—“
“Fuck you.” I slap a massive shoulder pad. “Fuck if that’s why I’m here.”
His face twists, and he takes a step into my space. “Why are you here? You treated him like shit.” I must have winced because he sneers. “Yeah, I know. You didn’t want him before, so why are you here now?”
“Because I—” My mouth goes dry. I’m not saying this to Gray. Only to Drew. But Gray is glaring a hole through my head, and he’s the only one who can bring me to Drew. “I care about him.” It’s true but not the whole truth. “I don’t know if he needs me or even wants to see me. But he needs someone. He’s alone and hurting, and I—” My breath hitches. “I want him to know that I’m here. For him. I… I don’t want him to feel alone right now. “
Gray looks at me for what feels like an eternity, and then his shoulders sag. “Look, they aren’t letting anyone see him now, only the coaches. They’re taking him to the hospital. Go home,” his gaze scans my front and I realize that I’m covered in honey mustard and barbecue sauce, “take a shower, and I’ll pick you up. We can go together.”
Leaving Drew behind is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I’m shaking by the time I get home.
An hour later, I’m in Gray’s truck, and we’re headed to the hospital.
Our silence is awkward and heavy. I know Gray doesn’t like me, and I’m not keen on why he doesn’t. Guilt is a brick on my chest.
“You were wrong about him,” Gray finally says.
I stir from my vigil out the window. And he continues when I give him a questioning look. “Drew doesn’t sleep around. As in, he doesn’t have casual sex. Not for a while now.”
I must look skeptical—and I admit, I’m a little shocked—because Gray shrugs. “Yeah, he went a bit wild for a couple of years. We all did. And yeah, he’s got girls hanging on him left and right. But that’s all they do. Hang there.”
“Out of the goodness of his heart,” I can’t help but say. The vision of endless toothpaste commercial candidates dancing through my head makes it all a little hard to believe.
“No,” Gray says with exaggerated patience. “More like he’s too lazy and too easygoing to give them the brush off. He might fool around now and then, but he doesn’t f**k them.” Gray snorts when I raise my brow. “Don’t believe me. But it’s the truth. Coach batters safe sex messages into our heads on a constant basis. Drew’s a star, and people will do crazy things to catch a ride. He’s got to watch out for false pregnancy accusations, potential cries of rape, bullshit that most college guys never deal with. And well…”
Gray scratches behind his ear. “He got burned. The beginning of junior year. Jenny,” this comes out like a bad word. “Drew and Jenny had been together since the end of sophomore year. She wanted to get married.”
“When they were twenty?” I practically yell. “That’s insane.”
He nods like I’m preaching to the choir. “That’s what Drew told her. But Jenny wanted insurance. That he wouldn’t sleep around, find another girl, as if that was even remotely Drew’s style. When Drew said no, that they were too young. She gave him an ultimatum and he walked.”
“Well, it’s certainly an unfortunate story—”
“A week later,” Gray cut in, “Jenny’s telling anyone who’d listen how Drew dumped her because he was stressed over football. That he was scared of losing. That his arm was ‘in agony’ after every practice. She showed people their text messages. Select ones that skewed the truth to her purposes.”
Gray’s expression turns ugly. “You said it. And they listened. The press. Other teams. You expose a hint of weakness, and they pounce. Drew was pummeled during every game we had. Now, every girl he’s with, he has to wonder if she’ll sell him out.”
I sink back into the leather seat, deflated. “Why are you telling me all this?” I look at Gray. “I mean, shouldn’t you be watching his back, not spilling his secrets?”
“I am watching his back. You need to know that he isn’t a player. And if that’s all you’re after—”
“There are things about me that Drew had wrong too,” I snap, but then sag. “I’m not telling them to you. But he’s more to me than just…”
My face flames. “Really? You really just said that to me?”
He laughs. “Kind of worth it to see your cringe.”
While Drew has his bone reset, Gray and I sit in the lobby. A ways down, the ubiquitous group of girls hangs around like specters, clearly waiting for word of Drew. They titter when they catch sight of us, and I roll my eyes.
“Excuse me,” says one of them, her voice anything but polite. “Are you Big Red Hen?”
My face prickles. Beside me, Gray mutters something ripe under his breath and rubs his big hand over his eyes. Is that what people have been calling me? Iris and George have been sheltering me, keeping me off social media, but I know there’s been talk. Most of it ugly.
Slowly I turn. There’s four of them. Tanned, thin, smug.
“No,” I say. “I’m Anna Jones.”